Advances in Immunotherapy for Metastatic Merkel Cell Carcinoma: A Clinician's Guide

Authors: Kelly G. Paulson MD, PhDa and Shailender Bhatia MDa
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  • a Division of Medical Oncology, Department of Medicine, University of Washington; Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Seattle, Washington.
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Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC) is a neuroendocrine skin cancer. The clinical impact of MCC has been increasing due to steadily rising incidence rates. Since 2001, more than 24,000 cases of MCC have been reported to the US National Program of Cancer Registries database, and in 2018, more than 2,500 incident cases are expected. MCC is highly aggressive, and one-third of patients will either present with or develop metastatic disease. Outcomes in patients with metastatic MCC have historically been poor; median time to progression with cytotoxic chemotherapy is only 3 months. MCC has long been appreciated to be immunogenic, with reports of spontaneous regression and responsiveness to immunotherapy. However, the mechanisms of this immunogenicity have only been understood over the past decade, with approximately 80% of cases in the United States associated with the Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCPyV) and expression of viral antigens (virus-positive [VP] MCC), and the remaining 20% of cases caused by UV radiation–induced damage leading to a high mutational burden and expression of neoantigens (virus-negative [VN] MCC). These insights have led to multiple successful trials of immunotherapies for MCC. PD-1 axis checkpoint inhibitors are now regarded as the preferred frontline systemic therapy in eligible patients (including both VP- and VN-MCC), with impressive frequency, durability, and depth of objective responses, which compare favorably to those of most solid tumors. This article reviews the safety and efficacy data from the key clinical trials of immune checkpoint inhibitors for metastatic MCC, and discusses several issues relevant to the clinical use of these agents. Finally, emerging immunotherapies for MCC, including cellular therapies and adjuvant systemic therapies, are reviewed.

Correspondence: Shailender Bhatia, MD, Division of Medical Oncology, Department of Medicine, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, 825 Eastlake Avenue E, Mailstop #CE2-102, Seattle, WA 98109. Email: sbhatia@uw.edu
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